Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing
Essential Services, was introduced in the Alberta Legislature
on March 15, 2016. As the name suggests, it is the Alberta
Government's response to the Supreme Court of Canada's
decision in Saskatchewan
Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan. As we reported in
February of last year, this decision reversed decades of law by
finding that the right to strike is constitutionally protected
under s. 2 of the Charter. However, it would be inaccurate to say
that the SCC actually mandated this answer to its decision or that
this was the only possible response to that decision.
Bill 4 would amend the Alberta Public Service Employee
Relations Act and Labour Relations Code to provide
most public sector workers with their first ever ability to take
strike action as a means of resolving collective bargaining
disputes. While municipal firefighters, police, and ambulance
attendants will remain subject to compulsory interest arbitration
as the only available means of resolving a bargaining impasse,
other public service employees will be able to strike so long as
adequate access to essential government services is maintained.
Employers will have the corresponding right to lockout those
employees designated as non-essential.
The legislation defines "essential services" in a
narrow way. It only includes those services which cannot be
interrupted without endangering the life, safety, or health of the
public, or are necessary to maintaining public security or the rule
of law. It also goes further than other legislation and prohibits
the affected employers from using replacement workers or even
volunteers to cover for striking workers unless the employer is
able to obtain an exemption. In order to qualify for an exemption,
employers will have to demonstrate that either:
no bargaining unit employees perform essential services;
essential services can be maintained without reliance on
Therefore, the legislation will mean that many public services
will be completely stopped by a strike. The public service includes
many large bargaining units performing a variety of services. If
some services performed by such a bargaining unit are deemed to be
"essential", and others not, the public may just have to
suffer the inconvenience of going without the
"nonessential" services. In some cases, that will of
course entail more than just inconvenience because governments
provide many services which, although they don't fit the narrow
definition of "essential", are important for
The legislation will require essential services agreements to be
negotiated between the relevant trade union and employer before any
strike action is taken. Essential services agreements must detail
such things as the specific services that will be maintained during
a strike, the classifications of employees and number of positions
required to perform the agreed upon essential services, how
employees will be assigned to perform them, and the procedures to
be followed in responding to both foreseeable changes and
unforeseeable emergencies. Disagreements arising in the negotiation
or application of essential services agreements will be resolved
with the assistance of arms-length umpires and by a very powerful
Essential Services Commissioner.
There may be changes to the legislation before it is eventually
passed but, assuming this Bill remains largely intact, there are
major changes coming to public sector collective bargaining. The
dynamics of bargaining will profoundly change for those employers.
Furthermore, every citizen who benefits from government services
which do not fit the definition of "essential", will be
exposed to future interruptions of service due to strikes and
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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